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Robot Helps Humans in the Factory
Time and experience have eased fears that robots will replace factory workers and leave many of them out of work. Here's a technique that may permanently put these fears to rest. It brings together humans and robots in the workplace.
The technique, developed by researchers at Northwestern University, combines the strength and guiding abilities of robots and humans. In so doing, it breaks down and makes possible a task that would normally be difficult for either robot or human to accomplish alone. In Northwestern's invention, a human operator provides motive power and the robot, through the use of servomotors, provides guidance.
The robot has a free-rolling wheel in contact with a work surface. An encoder monitors the wheel's rolling velocity. Unlike conventional robots, this one is not driven by motors. A motor is needed, however, to steer its wheels. The robot
moves only when the operator applies force to a handle. Force sensors monitor human exertion.
The developers, Michael Peshkin and Edward Colgate, call their invention cobot, for collaborative robot. Cobots are ideal for doing tasks that fall between manual and automated. They preserve a worker's ability to see, feel, and react as needed, and eliminate the strain of doing work that's physically difficult.
Peshkin and Colgate developed the cobot with funding from General Motors. A team of engineers from Northwestern and GM has honed the final design and is overseeing testing and application. Collaborative Motion Control Inc (Evanston IL) has licensed the technology and is focusing on developing industrial applications. The first cobot is being readied to handle car doors on a GM automobile assembly line. A patent is pending on the design.